Thursday, June 30, 2011


We stayed in Calais marina for eight nights and can thoroughly recommend the place, although I wouldn't berth near the access ramp on the visitors pontoon, which appeared a good idea at the time. With the rise and fall of the tide, the ramp  perpetually creaks and groans and only has a brief respite for a few hours at low water, when the cill at the entrance prevents the onslaught of the tide. Apart from that, any westerly winds, and we had three days of strong ones after we arrived, rattle down the length of the marina making it quite uncomfortable where we were berthed.

Calais Marina is what you would expect from a 'normal' marina. with all on-site ammenities. It has a good toilet/shower block, good bar/bistro, chandlers and the marina staff are very helpful. They also speak reasonable English - we had no problem conversing in our Brummie-French. The drawbacks we encountered were that the pontoon hook-ups were restricted to 5amps and no drinking water. The water taps were labelled 'not drinking water' and with no other fresh water supply I was a bit miffed. The locals told me that it was a 'health and safety' issue, the mains water not being filtered or something like that. Unfortunately I wasn't convinced, but they didn't seem to suffer any consequences. Another drawback is that there is only one berthing rate, €23.40 for a 10.98m boat daily (high season - €20.28 low). No weekly or monthly rates which I thought quite unusual.

The marina itself is quite large and has 262 berths, most of which are used by the locals. The staff require visitors to show the 'ships papers' when booking in and will view the insurance certificate. A link to their very informative website is here. Apart from the visitors pontoon and the local berths at the western end, there is a central area of berths which can be used by visitors if unoccipied. We took advantage of one of these after Sno' Rush was de-masted. The on-site chandlers is well equipped and has a small electric crane which is ideal for de-masting and lifting lighter boats from the water. The owner speaks good english and at only €50 per mast is a good value. He is also extremely patient, which as we know, is not a patricularly French trait. There are two clevis pins at the bottom of my mast that secure it to the deck plate. I thought the weight of the mast was 'pinching' them when I prepared everything the day before but, no - one was siezed solid and took over an hour to hacksaw free. Everything was going so well up to then! Luckily it was off before lunch, which made the monsieur happy. He was really very good, giving instructions as to which stay to loosen off next etc, as I really hadn't got a clue. He has my vote of thanks and comes recommended.

                                              Sno' Rush in canal mode

The marina staff were also very helpful particularly, as when they realised we were off down the canals, they provided guidance sheets showing photographs of the two locks and five bridges (three swing), together with VHF and mobile phone numbers of the bridge operators. We found these extremely helpful.

With the vignette purchased on-line, printed off and displayed on the boat, we were looking to set off on Saturday morning (28th May), catching the 0917 opening of the bridge to ensure a free-flow through the Ecluse Carnot. I'd noticed the day before that the usually quite marina was recieving quite a few English boats throughout the day. I was told that the forthcoming weekend was the Little Ships Rally and around 100 boats were expected. Previous years had seen rows of boats, rafted 6-deep on the visitors pontoon! It was not surprising then, when we pulled off the berth to await the bridge opening, that we were jostling for space amongst the locals who appeared to be evacuating the marina for the weekend.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Crossing the Straights of Dover

All was looking well to be lifted back in, get prepared and set off in early April, but of course things change. I had a phone call from my father who was worried about my mothers health. There was no option but to return to Birmingham and help. As it happened, it took only 6 weeks to ensure both were back to normal. It did bring home the fact that, however healthy, their advancing years would play a greater part in any of our future plans. Still, for now, we were all back on track.

I had no undue concern about crossing the Straights of Dover, even the traffic separation zones. After all, we had made several cross-channel passages over the years. I must admit however, that I did sit on the top of the Western Heights and watch the Straights to gauge the amount of traffic that passes. Some days I saw only odd ships passing in each direction, on other days, it was distinctly busy, lines of 'juggrnauts', seemingly nose-to-tail, steaming north or south in a perpetual silent conga. I wondered if the crews ever have bank holidays!

The original aim was to cross on Neaps, heading towards the outer marker of the Calais approach fairway to arrive at the start of the slack tide. This would give an hour or so to motor up the fairway against the slowly increasing SW-going tide, and enter the avant port. Staying shore-side of the fairway, in 6m of water, would keep us away from the ferries. Outside Calais, the tide turns from running NE to SW at HW(Calais) +3.5. Catching the NW tide, we could guess at travelling at around 5 knots, making the passage to the outer marker in 4hours or so. Since HW(Calais) is +0048mins HW(Dover), a departure time of HW(Dover) -1 would be needed. This was spot on as the gates to the Wellington dock open only between HW-1.5 to +1.5. That was the plan, but of course we were now 6 weeks further on and approaching Springs. The weather forecast wasn't too good, but a few days of settled weather was on the cards for the following week. It meant travelling a few days after Springs, which, if we could cope with the 4 knot tide rushing past the entrance to Dover and the 4 knots or so that travels NE on the French side of the channel, the passage would be done.

All things considered, Friday 20th May was looking to be the day we set off. Surprisingly, Friday remained as forecast, with a nice SW f4/5 on the cards. So we said our goodbyes and when the gates opened at 1245 hours, we motored out of the marina. Brian and Geoff escorted us out in Geoff's boat Sulac. They said it was a traditional gesture, but I have the distinct impression they wanted to make sure we went! Outside the entrance it was decidedly lumpy! I'd worked the tides and found that a course to steer of 150degM would gives us the required track of 120degT from Dover Entrance to the Calais Approach buoy. I'd also worked out that about 1/4 mile out from Dover the tidal stream fell away to around 1knot, an ideal opportunity to pop the sails up. Unfortunately, the wind over the receding tide only served to keep the waves active at around 1.5m, and these, slamming on the starboard beam makes for a very uncomfortable time. Having the genoa and mizzen up would have steadied her up but I didn't fancy working the deck as she was thrown around. In any case, the SW-bound traffic zone was approaching and there was a line of tankers in front of us, trailing back as far as Ramsgate. We decided to stick it out for the time being.

                                                          We're off!
                                              (Courtesy of Geoff Dunne)

I must admit, I get satisfaction from gauging the speed of these things and picking a place to safely pass astern. Simple things please simple minds, I guess. I'd checked our speed and picked out a perfect place after some oil tanker, and had just started for the gap when I noticed the following 'big 'un' change direction. Evidently the helm had 'fell asleep' and wandered too near to the English coast, as he'd now turned from passing well behind me to a course taking him across my path. You can't really argue with these things can you. It was a case of turning towards him and, with only enough speed to maintain steerage, letting the tide carry us past him to turn under his stern. It was pleasant relief from the waves but cost us some distance as we waited for him to pass. This took us some time to get back on track, as the incessant 'pinging' of our plotter was reminding us.

Fortunately, the remaining 'down-channel' traffic were heading to pass behind us and caused no further problems. We passed through the separation zone and saw only a few 'up-channel' ships, certainly none that would cause us to alter course. It was about this time that we had realised that the strength of the wind and waves had remained unchanged. I was still harbouring a desire to get the sails up when I heard a strong wind warning broadcast over the radio from the French Coastguard. I gave the sail idea up after that, consoling myself with the fact that I would probably get pitched into the briny if I tried. Hil liked that idea too, no, not me being jettisoned overboard but keeping the sails stowed. She has an inherent dislike of sailing in anything other than calm weather. I suspect I'm the cause, as we (I) used to push Sno' Rush when we first had her, to see how she handled in different winds. I learned that she wouldn't be pushed just as quickly as Hil wouldn't stand for gunnel's in the water!

I'd been plotting our course throughout the passage and was quite pleased that we'd remained generally on track. I had been a little worried that the 3/4 knot NE tides could push us off track causing an up-tide slog to get back on course to arrive at the entrance to the approach fairway. As it so happened, the only worry I had on the approach was the ferries in and out of the fairway. On the way over, they had all passed to the north of us. As we closed towards the entrance however, a P & O had passed to our south. It was then that I saw a Seafrance ferry, perhaps a mile astern and on our course. Evidently I was taking his ground as he made no attempt to alter course, merely slowing down. I knew we were some way from the seaward side of the approach channel and presumed he was waiting for us to cross to the shore-side, but it was a bit menacing having this Goliath following 'up our chuff'. I turned away and did a long, slow 360 degrees and to my relief saw him speed up and pass to our south.

                                         The entrance to Calais Port

We didn't actually see the outer marker of the approach channel, but followed the line of CA buoys towards the West Jetty. Although now gusting f6, the shallower water and reduced tide eased things a little. The entrance to Calais is regulated by an International Port Traffic Signal (IPTS) system rather than a VHF call-up for permission to enter. It appears to work well and the lights are clearly visible on a tower just inside the East Jetty. We had to mark time for about 15 minutes but when a ferry came out and the lights changed to green for us, we happily trundled in. I knew the layout of the port from a previous visit, we'd popped over on the ferry on one of the P & O day-specials, so I followed the West Jetty into the arriére port, again governed by IPTS lights, and then into the outer harbour of the marina.

                                     The outer harbour of Calais Marina
                                            (taken from swing-bridge)

Here there are a number of pick-up buoys for boats to wait for the swing-bridge to open and enter the marina. The bridge opens at -3, -2, -1, HW, +1.25, +2.5 and is restricted to vessels of less than 3m draught due to a cill at the entrance. I had expected to pick up a buoy but was amazed to see the marina boat charging towards us, ushering us to enter the marina. We'd surprisingly managed to make the last entry into the marina. At 1745 hours we were tied up on the long visitors pontoon within the marina. At last we were in France!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Over-wintering in Dover.

Dover turned out to be a good place to spend the winter. The marina comes with all the usual facilities which makes life so much more bearable in the depths of winter. The town however, is a different story. We did plenty of exploring in our idle-times during the summer and autumn. The town reminds me of a once-thriving community that has become overshadowed by its neighbour, in this case the empire that is Dover Port. It seems that for all the through-traffic, no-one stops to discover the town. It has plenty of history all around, but you have to search for it, or stumble on it as we did a number of times.

There are a couple of famous-name stores within the town - Morrison's being our favourite, not only for shopping, but its café and cheap meals, and all within a twenty-minute walk of the boat! The rest are 'downtown' shops as I call them, which describes them fairly accurately. Others such as Tesco's, B & Q and Homebase are a car-ride away, as is Folkestone which is the nearest centre of civilisation. For serious shopping though, Canterbury, a mere 16 miles away, is an absolute gem - a 'biggish' city with all the trimmings.

The port, or Dover Harbour Authority, is an immense institution covering the whole seaward access of Dover and the immediate hinterland. It's not until you actually walk around the area that you realise what Europe's busiest ferry port actually comprises of. It even has its own Police Force to protect its interests. The marina comes under the auspices of DHB which has clear benefits, such as electricians on site when the electricity supply fails, 24-hour marina office staff and proper boatyard services for lift-outs.

So, the winter passed without too many problems. We bought a Calor gas heater in preparation for the cold weather and although I was a bit dubious about its use on board, it soon proved its worth. The pontoon electricity breakers were rated at 15 amps but the marina advised no more that 10A, the reason for which became clear when then 'residents' began switching on their heaters. It became a daily event to monitor our supply to maintain 2kW for the heaters, switching one off in favour of the 1kW immersion for an hour. Hot water makes for a more civilised life we found.

One problem I couldn't resolve was the condensation. After the attempts at Brighton had failed, that is trying to reduce it by closing down each cabin as the temperatures fell, we chose to maintain a reasonable temperature throughout the boat, keeping the various cabins open and taking doors of cupboards to promote ventilatation. It was slightly better, but the problem still didn't stop. Clearly, it is the movement of warm air throughout the boat that will significantly reduce it. This became obvious when we used to visit Brian, further along the pontoon. He maintained 23degC by way of a Mikuni diesel heater, supplemented by an electric fan heater and suffered none of our condensation problems. I will never forget popping in to chat to him when the snow was on the ground, only to find him dressed in a 'T' shirt and shorts. Now that is comfort!

                                        Who said it didn't snow in Dover

I must say that the community that over-wintered that year was exceptional, particularly Brian and Geoff (who regularly travelled from Grimsby). Then there was Brian & Elaine, Peter (who was passing through after returning from Antigua), Dave and Heather, who gave advice on the French canals, Graham who arranged for some parts to be welded for me, Sue and Neil from Manchester and a few others whose names, I'm sorry to say, I can't remember.

As Winter passed we started to look forward to our sons wedding in Australia. In February, we flew out from Heathrow, at a  cool 5degC, to Byron Bay, NSW, that was basking in 30degC. What a contrast! It was a couple of fantastic weeks we shall treasure.

On our return came the job of renovating Sno' Rush from the homely 'caravan' to a working sailboat again. It was about this time that one of those rare, fortuitous events occurred. Hil was on Brian's boat helpinh him to replace his curtains. She spotted a home-made board onto which an orange thingy was fitted. When she asked, Brian said it was a diesel heater he'd cobbled together. How about that! A complete almost working Ebespacher D4. A quick trip to the local specialist and, hey presto, one fully working 4kW diesel heater, albeit obsolete. That will cure the condensation problems next winter - many thanks Brian.

Sno' Rush was lifted out in March, scrubbed and anti-fouled, anodes changed, stuffing box re-packed, all those out-of-water chores that need to be attended to before the new season. And then, by April, we were ready for the off. Funny thing is, with all the work I'd done to the engine, and even though she purred when running, there still seemed to be excessive smoke when she fired up and idled. Couldn't quite fathom it, as under power the smoke virtually disappeared. Never mind, there can't be much wrong - we're ready for the canals!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The start....................

I think I've finally sorted out this blogging lark......well, I think so anyway! My heroes on Hannah have shown me the way (thanks Mick & Bee), and it seems the best way to keep anyone who is interested up-to-date.
I wrote an article for The Macwester Owners Association which was published in their 'Journal'. It gives account of the journey from Sno' Rush's home at Quayside Marina in Southampton to Dover Marina. I actually won a prize for its content so I'm really proud of it. I'll inset it here to begin the story. 

Our first year as “Liveaboards".

By rights, we should be sunning ourselves on the deck of Sno’ Rush, moored fore and aft near Le Mole St Louis in Seté Marina. It’s a sunny 29°C there today, and where am I – dodging showers in Dover Marina!

I can’t complain really, we’ve had quite a good summer here on the Southeast coast, and I’ve just a hint of a suntan. But why are we here and not there? Simple – life is different as a “liveaboard”. However well a plan is made, it is not until the ball is actually rolling that the practicalities of retiring to a boat come to the fore. Anyway, this is our story so far.

The 'plan', was to retire from work and sail off to the Med via the French canals. The dream had been ours for about 15 years, during which time we had prepared the finances and most importantly, the kids, to our impending abandonment. The details of the route and the timing of the lock closures were done, the boat, although not in tip-top condition, was well prepared for the journey. We’d done a similar trip a few years before, up the Seine to Paris and back, so had some idea of the problems that arise. And, as Rod Heikell says, “……the power of thought and an iron determination can accomplish much more than a sluggish spirit in the ‘right’ boat” – and if the author of countless Mediterranean boating bibles says it, who are we to argue!

So, in August 2009, we packed our bags and moved onto the boat to begin the dream.  Sno’ Rush is a Hebridean, a 36’ 0” deck saloon ketch based on the Seaforth hull. Only two or three have ever been built so seeing another will be a rare treat. We’ve always known she was a good liveaboard, having a well-sized saloon, separate heads and galley with a good-sized double forecabin (master cabin the blurb calls it) and large separate aftercabin with twin berths. She is a motorsailer, as her 8½ tons displacement is a bit much for the ketch rig to move her anywhere near the ‘brisk’ category. I guess that’s why she was named Sno’ Rush (It’s No Rush). In fact, however much sail trimming I do, I can’t get her moving any quicker through the water than 3 knots in a f3 and 4kn in a f4. In a f5 I have to reduce sail as she starts to roll which gets more uncomfortable as the wind increases. By f6, I’m motorsailing again with short sails to stabilise her. She will take the stronger winds, as I found out by accident a couple of times in the Solent, but a f7 gusting 8 is such a horrible place to be when your rushing back from a rally.

Sno' Rush at Brighton

All things done, on 20 August we said our farewells to those at Quayside Marina in Southampton and cast off from the berth for the last time. We’d been there for 10 years and only just gained favour by the inner circle of local boat-owners. Since the season was coming to an end, the intention was to overwinter in Dover and continue over to Dunkerque at the start of the new season. Taking stops at Portsmouth, Littlehampton, Brighton and Eastbourne along the way seemed a sensible passage. As we slipped down Southampton Water on a balmy sun-drenched day, all was very much well with the world.

The optimism continued on the next leg, so much so that the stop at Littlehampton was disregarded in favour of making Brighton direct. Not much wind, but it was southwesterly and enough to fill the genoa to stop her rolling under power.

Ahh… Bohemian Brighton! We’ve moored there a few times over the years and always enjoyed it. The marina is hemmed in from the Channel by a large retaining sea wall and is amid a large residential and retail complex. And, there is an Asda 10 minutes walk from the boat! The town centre is a short bus-ride away and is, coming from a large city ourselves, always vibrant and refreshing. We like it at Brighton, and so our thoughts turned to over-wintering there instead. The mooring rates at Dover were slightly cheaper and had the added advantage of a free 10 amp electrical supply. But then, when we visited Dover by car, it seemed a bit quiet and, well, boring. So, with little resistance from Hil, we booked our place for the winter period, and made plans for the grandkids to stay during the half-term holidays. The life of living aboard now started in earnest.

We’d converted to boat-life quite easily, doing those little chores that need to be done to make life liveable. Different rules and regimes to follow, all different to that of a homeowner. What is fascinating, and something I hadn’t considered, is how easy it is to spend cash in those idle times, the afternoon coffee and cakes at the café, the extra visit to the cinema to relieve the monotony, that extra tool to fix the ‘thingy’ that I didn’t need but wanted ‘just in case’. Anyway the grandkids came, and brought with them an 'Indian Summer', and the news that another grandchild was on the way. Great news, but another change in plan to consider.

Aerial View of Brighton Marina.

We didn’t actually liveaboard over winter. The intention always was to spend Christmas and New Year at home anyway, but we gave up early in December to seek the warm fires and ease of living at home. If you remember, November brought the high winds and gales to the South Coast. It was then that Brighton Marina took on a totally different aspect. That foreboding sea wall seemed far less a protector when the gales bustled in. We were moored near to the Marina office about 250 feet from the sea wall that rose to a good 50 ft above MHWS. In high winds, the sea would hit the wall and throw a plume of water in the air which, irrespective of the wind direction, always seemed to shower Sno’ Rush with seawater (and sand…and sea shells et al). The tide also turned the hairpin entrance and picked up speed to cause Sno’ Rush to continually ‘snake’ in her berth. My wind meter recorded a f9 during this period, it may have been higher but it stopped working shortly after - obviously had enough. I felt the same way in the saloon below it. Hil missed these ‘treats’ as she says, having been back in Birmingham, and felt she’d missed out. I tried to convey the threat to life the hurricanes had provided, but I don’t think she believed me.

After the gales, the temperatures plummeted. Late November/early December nights saw me locked in the forecabin, fully clothed (with thermals) tucked under the duvet with a 2kw heater blowing. It had gone down to around 2°C overnight, with little prospect of daytime temperatures rising to more than 8°C. The only bright hope was that the free-to-air signal in the marina was brilliant for television reception – isn’t Jeremy Kyle good!  The electrical supply on the berth was limited to 16amps, allowing us 3.8kw for electrical items. We were using 2 oil-filled radiators, 1kw and 2kw output, and it didn’t take long to become tiresome to switch one of these off, or the fridge, to use the immersion, or microwave or kettle, bearing in mind that the battery charger was on constantly to supplement the 12v supply. Using the gas cooker, although an alternative heat source only served to produce more condensation, and we had enough of that with our own breaths. We have a blown air heating system operated by LPG but the heater died many years ago – amazing how many times I cursed my lack of forethought not finding a replacement. It was becoming a constant battle to keep the heat in, and cold out, so when Hil came back and sampled the conditions, it was quickly pointed out that life onboard was not very comfortable - so we headed back home to the warmth.

 And then there was fog.

We got back to Sno’ Rush early in March, which was opportune as the long cold spell lasted until after Hil's appointments leaving us free to move on from Brighton. The winter contract ended on 31 March and we didn’t really want to start paying the summer rates. The general plan was to move up the coast to Dover and cross to Dunkerque late in the season, then go down the canals to over-winter in Seté. So, at 1230 on 27 March 2010, we took advantage of a break in the weather and made for Sovereign Harbour at Eastbourne. A chilly and overcast passage lasting 5½ hours in light winds, but the slight swell made the 21Nm trip really enjoyable. We’ve done the journey once before and rounding Beachy Head to turn for Sovereign seems such a fulfilling end to passage, particularly as dusk is falling. After spending a day to ourselves in the lock-bound marina, we set off at 0500 on 29 March for Dover. The forecast was f3/4 gusting 5 and slight swell, but we were off before the 0600 Navtex forecast could confirm any changes. When it did come, we were 2 hours out and halfway between Sovereign and Dungeness - the conditions were set to deteriorate to f6/7 with fog at Dover. I think we both knew what the decision was going to be, even though we did discuss the option the option of continuing, in the probability that the fog would lift by the time we reached Dover. So, as there is nowhere else suitable in the area for us, we turned back to Sovereign. What took us two hours with tide, took 4 hours against it. At 1100 we were in the lock asking if our berth was still vacant.

 Sovereign Harbour, Eastbourne

How fortune fails the faint hearted! The weather closed in on us with high winds, low temperatures and even hail stones the size of small pebbles. Sovereign is owned by Premier Marinas, the same as Brighton, but its location is much more protected from the elements. The lock stops all tides entering and the high residential buildings on three sides restrict most winds other than a southerly that has to climb the shorefront and lock-head. With a protected berth and a free 16amp supply we snuggled down to wait for another break in the weather. Although not at busy as Brighton, Sovereign has all the facilities to make an enforced stay really pleasant. We remember it from years ago as a half-completed complex and were surprised how it had grown. A small-scale Brighton, so everything is within a short walk – even the Asda.

We left Sovereign at 1000 on 07 April for the 44Nm passage to Dover. Again the winds fell light so it was a motorsail in a sloppy swell. The tide here is fortunate for anyone making the passage as Beachy Head causes a back eddy giving a couple of hours extra tide up-channel. It took 9¼ hours to reach Dover - a long slog when under engine. And with the wind picking up, it was brisk entrance into the port. I must admit that Dover isn’t as busy as I was led to believe. Yes, ferries coming and going and tankers using the traffic zones, but by keeping to the inshore track we had no worries at all. The way to the marina is via the Western Entrance whilst all the ferries use the Eastern Entrance. True, passenger liners are now using the Western Entrance but they are humungous, and well visible from the approaches as they tower above the outer wall. In any case, Dover Port Control monitor all the comings and goings and require all vessels to contact them when two miles out. It was a pleasure to turn in from the wind and chop to the tranquillity of the harbour.

 Dover Harbour from the Western Heights

Dover Marina comprises of three berthing areas of pontoons. The Tidal Harbour, which has 24-hour access, and the Granville and Wellington Docks, both of which have lock gates restricting access to HW ±1½ hours and HW ± 4 hours respectively. The Marina itself provides all the boating services you would ever need, and there is a chandler, bistro, Spar and retail shopping outlet close at hand, with Dover town centre only 15 minutes walk away. The shingle beach is only 5 minutes away, in the enclosed harbour, and hosts of waterborne activities form the athletic types – we just sunbathe.

We are in Wellington Dock and have now decided to over-winter here. A choice made after finding my beloved engine had a broken valve spring. I thought the head gasket had gone and only found it when I was stripping the engine down – I’m amazed nothing happened when we were motoring along the coast! Funny how many things you find need changing/repairing when you start fixing engines. Anyway, the jobs are gradually getting ticked off the list – I’ll never finish all of them, perhaps I’ll save one or two for when we’re in the Med!